Julia Child: centennial of a master
Julia Child was one of the most influential chefs in the 20th century, if not of all time. So, eight years after her death in 2004, the celebration of her life continues with great fanfare here in Charleston and across the country.
A few Lowcountry events today are celebrating the 100th birthday of Julia Child:
4-6 p.m., Champagne Tea, 100 Queen St. Sponsored by Charleston Chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier. Guests are invited to don their favorite Julia hat or apron as they join Les Dames at the home of chef and author Nathalie Dupree for an afternoon of tea, champagne and teatime treats. Tickets $25 at door. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP and for information.
6 p.m. “I Remember Julia” with Robert Dickson, Charleston Library Society, 164 King St. Dickson, a longtime Charleston chef and restaurateur, will share his personal memories of the famous chef from their time together in Cambridge, Mass. $15 donation at door. To RSVP, call 723-9912.
6-10 p.m. Julia Child Birthday Dinner, Glass Onion, 1219 Savannah Highway, $35 for three courses. Optional wine pairing $15 per guest. Limited availability. Reservations required; call 225-1717.
Today, Aug. 15, would have been Child's 100th birthday.
Child transformed American cooking as television's “The French Chef” beginning in the 1960s and later as an author of the tome, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She embarked on her culinary career relatively late in life, at age 37. But by the time of her death at age 91 — just two days shy of her birthday, she was a household name worldwide.
What is not widely known is that part of her family tree has taken root in the Lowcountry.
Child's nephew, John McWilliams IV, and his wife, Nancy Marshall, quietly blend in as residents and artists in McClellanville. They have a home on a tidal creek and a studio in town across the street from T.W. Graham's, a restaurant they frequent.
Their daughter, Katy Malloy, and her husband make their home in Savannah. She works for the conservation nonprofit Georgia Land Trust. Malloy also writes a food blog and is a founder of the Slow Food chapter in Savannah, undertakings that surely would have made her great-aunt proud.
“A love of food, we definitely all share that,” she says.
From conversations, the family seems to have many other traits in common as well: hands-on creativity, love of place and inspiration from it, modesty and lack of pretension.
McWilliams and Malloy both remember Child, who had no children of her own, as being exceptionally warm and genuine.
Malloy was about 15 and living in Atlanta and Child in her 80s when her great-aunt invited her to come along on a book tour in the 1990s. Child was making multiple stops to do book signings and appearances. Malloy knew her aunt was famous, but not that famous.
“I just remember she really enjoyed meeting people who came. There were a lot of people who actually brought her food. I remember thinking, 'Wow, you have to have some confidence to bring Julia Child food.'
“It was sweet, people brought her things that they made from her recipes and shared stories about how they experienced learning to cook something from her cookbooks, or grew up watching her. She always really liked hearing those things and listening to everyone. And had a moment for everyone.”
During that time, they ate a meal in a very nice restaurant. (Malloy believes it was the Ritz-Carlton.) At any rate, the chef made a big deal over Child being his guest, and one special dish after another came to their table.
Malloy will never forget when Child leaned over and whispered to her, “Sometimes you just want a hamburger, you know.”
But, Malloy says, “She would never let on to them. She was completely gracious about it.”
McWilliams, now 71, is the son of Child's brother. There were three McWilliams siblings: Julia, the oldest, followed by John III, and Dorothy, affectionally called “Dort.”
McWilliams recalls that his father and his sisters were all quite close and regularly visited each other. And Julia and husband Paul treasured their relationships with their six nephews and nieces. “She was very good to us,” he says.
“The thing about her, what you see is what she was. There was no pretension. She was very giving and interested in you when you were talking to her.”
Both Julia and Paul, an artist himself, encouraged McWilliams' early curiosity about the arts. While Paul didn't have the warmth of his wife, “he was really nice to me,” says McWilliams.
“I remember nagging him to draw me a horse. He drew me a beautiful little rococo horse. I was amazed by it.”
Visiting their home, “I remember Paul's paintings always in evidence. I remember a Cheshire cat amongst these flowers. It was a mesmerizing painting to me as a child.”
The Childs remained supportive as McWilliams developed into a photographer and artist as an adult, and they took an interest in his work. They came to see one of his photo exhibits at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The glue for them was their interest in the arts. They knew a lot of creative people.”
McWilliams was in his early 20s and in school in Providence, R.I., when Child began her cooking show on public television in 1963. He went to see a few of the filmings himself.
The show's success amazed many, including the family. “It seems like it grew organically. It just started out with her doing an omelet on television. ... It was natural the way it evolved.”
While Child captured people's imaginations, McWilliams also thinks his aunt was in the right place at the right time. “She plugged into what was needed culturally in food.”
Some may associate Child with high-flying French cuisine, but McWilliams' memories of meals with her center on simple-but-delicious roast chicken and the like. “Sometimes things are self-conscious in the way they are prepared. Her meals were none of that, nothing fussy.”
He loves to cook, has made Julia's famous beef stew or “bourguignon,” and still makes her pizza dough. But McWilliams is not a recipe follower. “I use her cookbooks as a reference, but I kinda wing it.”
McWilliams “discovered” McClellanville more than 40 years ago. He had moved to Atlanta in 1969 to start up a photography program at Georgia State University. About the same time, he took an extensive trip across the South, exploring and photographing the landscape.
“It was like I arrived in a time warp,” he says of the village then. “The Spanish moss was thick as white curtains. I just fell in love with the place.”
By the early 1980s, he was able to buy property on the marsh and put up a cabin. He and Nancy would bring their four children “kicking and screaming” for getaways over the years. (“Now my kids can't have enough,” he says.) Ten years ago they retired, he as professor and director emeritus of Georgia State's School of Art and Design, and built a home on their land.
McWilliams' art — primarily in woodcuts, printmaking and drawing today — is often inspired by the lush and mysterious landscape of the Lowcountry, much like Paris and the countryside of France were muses of food and cooking for his aunt Julia.
“There's an incredible sense of life and death here. You can smell it in the pluff mud. It's a very poignant environment,” he says. “Paradise with a bite.”
Malloy, his daughter, says Child effected big changes in her lifetime and was a very positive role model for her. Yet she doesn't often mention that she is Julia Child's niece.
“I'm very proud of her and having a woman like that in my family but I don't want to brag about it,” she says.
Malloy, 31, also loves cooking for family and friends and working on recipes, like Julia. She cares about authenticity, like Julia, which may explain her support of the Slow Food movement.
“I'm passionate about where foods come from. I think a lot of that comes from having Julia in my past, shared family experiences and our relationship with food.”
At the end of Child's life, even when she was living in California and could no longer travel, she still looked out for her family.
When Child was to receive the Medal of Freedom award at the White House, she could not go. But she insisted her family be there.
After the ceremony, the family gathered at a Georgetown restaurant. “Julia had made the arrangements,” says McWilliams. “We had a fabulous meal, many courses. We got Julia on the phone and passed it around. It was truly a celebration.”
The celebration continues. Happy birthday, Julia, and thanks, from all of us.